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Animated Edition - Winter 2007
Second skin - Creative Partnerships Coventry
Louise Katerega works outside her comfort zone to develop creativity
All I have to conjure with today are forty-odd recycled strips of plastic coated material, (random lengths, random colours), one cleared-out carpeted classroom and fifteen wide-eyed three and four year olds. My lesson plan: smile welcomingly, provoke movement. And that's it. Join us forty minutes later and a detailed 3D town plan fills the room before you. Let the children take you on their interactive tour.

'This is the swimming pool,' says Courtney of the collection of blue strips. (You dive in with us and copy our swimming strokes). 'You have to follow the road' says Kyle, indicating that we must walk, balancing carefully along the white strips which join us from location to location. 'This is the park. I made the roundabout', says Julia showing us round a minature garden of green sequins and circles of tissue paper'. You get the picture. And how did we arrive here?

First the children guided me - yes, they guided me - through a series of imaginative movement with the strips of plastic - stretching, balancing, wrapping, rolling, partnering, flapping. This lead to a 2-D art exploration, laying out the strips to make different shapes on the floor. We respond dead physically to this by mirroring the shapes with our bodies and jumping in and out of them. About five minutes later, I made an observation virtually to myself: 'Oh, it looks like a map' to which the children chorus 'Oh yes, yes it's a map' and rush around the classroom using all the extra art materials laid out enticingly and arranged by colour to complete their vision.

At this point I acknowledge to myself, thirteen years into my career as a dance artist in education, that I didn't even know three year olds knew what maps were let alone of their latent enthusiasm for town-planning. This is certainly not the outcome I would have planned or could have planned. It's so much more. Welcome to Coventry Creative Partnership's Second Skin.

Second Skin was launched in January 2005 by Creative Partnerships (CP) Coventry to develop innovative multi-sensory, multi-arts learning environments for Early Years children and their teachers. In its first incarnation, driven by the vision of CP director Jo Trowsdale and project consultant Vikki Holroyd, 11 artists, all from different disciplines, worked for six months with ten nursery schools creating, experiencing and reflecting on the notion that:

'the environment generates a sort of psychic skin, an energy giving second skin made of writings, images, material objects and colours which reveals the presence of the children even in their absence... The school environment must lend itself to manipulation and transformation by adults and children alike and be open to different ways of use'. (1)

The concept comes from Reggio Emilia, a region in Italy where a unique philosophy and pedagogy has been developed placing art, artists and creativity at the heart of early years education.

Broadly, 'a Reggio approach' encourages children to have a high degree of creative independence from adults with lessons based around 'provocations' into artistic activity rather than set tasks: 'the difference between conventional teaching and using a 'provocation' is the difference, for example, between helping your class of three year olds draw round a leaf and presenting the class with a pile of leaves, a pile of paper, a pile of pencils and following their lead as to what to do with them, avoiding aesthetic censorship and encouraging structure only once an idea is off the ground. One art form overlaps another, leadership roles interchange, language, independence and imaginations develop, confidence improves, co-operation occurs, the argument being that this is far better preparation for continuing through education and into working life than being guided too early into conventional adult-imposed thinking about what is 'right' and 'wrong' in art and learning.' (2)

Historically Reggio's general emphasis has been on visual art, however, Second Skin also included dance, theatre, music and new media in the mix of the project, partly in response to local teachers request for more performing arts training. Several of the Second Skin teachers and artists were able to take an inspirational CP subsidised trip to Reggio Emilia as part of the project.

Nine schools took part in Second Skin - five 'core' schools who had extensive interaction with it from inception and four 'partner schools' who benefited once ideas had been refined and developed.

The first phase of the project from January - March 2005 focussed on the professional development of teachers and artists in an experimental laboratory situation known as the LAB. This constituted two classrooms given over exclusively to the project for six months. The centre of the first classroom was cleared for thinking, dancing, discussing and around the edges storage space for the many art materials gathered as the project went along. Next door was an ever-evolving, multi-sensory, interactive environment developed first by the artists and then by the responses of the visiting children complete with dark spaces, light boxes, interactive technology, a textured wall to draw on or stick things to, a multitude of art materials and bric-a-brac - many of them recycled. After several sessions building the essential trust between artists to cross the boundaries into each other's art forms, the LAB began to take shape. Teachers from the schools visited regularly to take part in workshops building positive and equal relationships with the artists as well as input their knowledge into the creation of the interactive space. Finally children from the school visited the LAB at least once and spent half a day in the setting with a focus on process, permission and time to experiment.

Teachers and artists took turns to interact with the children in the lab or to meticulously document and photograph the children's responses. Teachers worked on a series of formal educational research questions, broadly, around the development of language. Artists were also given diaries and asked to take a free-form creative approach to documenting their observations and experiences e.g. to draw as well as write, to include materials and photographs. Both forms of documentation were treated as equal in the evaluation process. (3)

The second phase of the project took place over the summer term. Teams of two artists - one more experienced, one less so to continue the strand of professional development - transferred the creative approaches and principles learned from the LAB into the school environments. I, for example, worked with visual artist Laura Gilmour, in Deedmore Special School, where we used film of me created in the LAB as the basis for a copying exercise in dance lessons and worked extensively outdoors blending mark-making and physicality using various art materials, including ice and water, in the children's outdoor playspace.

Responses to Second Skin were universally positive from artists, teachers, children and parents. CP's work with Early Years in Coventry is ongoing with an expanded team of artists, but has already left a considerable legacy in both practical and pedagogic terms in the schools and in the practice of all involved. Results include:

Valley House Children's Centre adopting the Second Skin model as a beacon of good practice in the city with the input of three of the original Second Skin artists. This builds on links CP is making with Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships in the city
The majority of schools involved actively facilitating a ripple effect of Second Skin principles from Foundation Stage across the curriculum, into Keystage 1 and beyond. Examples of this include looking at phonics in the early stages of reading using drama and creative information technology, making creative learning environments available across the year groups and one instance of including measurement of the impact of learning environment on language development in the School Improvement Plan
'Interactive Spaces', a project positioning children's own creative ideas as part of computer generated installations which was trailled at the city's Herbert Art Gallery by three Second Skin artists including a dancer
'Regular 'Reggio' networking meetings between the 20 teachers and artists who visited through CP to continue to disseminate learning from their study trips.

As one of the participating artists, Second Skin left me with a profound legacy. Aside from gaining confidence to work outside my comfort zone cross-artform, I feel Second Skin re-introduced me to the power of play in both my teaching and my choreography. I now have so much more courage to make space for the unexpected, to give minimal direction, to trust the creative moment will arrive and that I will recognise it. From finding myself using music and song without thinking one day in a Year One workshop, to taking on an extensive project for Leicester Healthy Schools using dance to ease the emotional transition from year group to year group at Keystage One, to building a work which reached the semi-finals of The Place Prize this year, the Second Skin approach has permeated my practice in the most positive ways.

Louise Katerega is an independent dancer and choreographer and can be contacted on

1. Children, Spaces, Relations – metaproject for an environment for young Children, Reggio Children and Domus Academy Research Centre, 2003
2. For more information on Reggio Emilia see
3. The published evaluation of Second Skin is available at a cost of £5 (including a DVD of the LAB) from Creative Partnerships Coventry, tel: + 44 (0) 2476 236160 or see

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Animated: Winter 2007